Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal

This first novel in the series featuring Maggie Hope takes place at the beginning of the Battle of Britain in World War II. Although born in England, Maggie has been brought up by her aunt outside of Boston. Excelling in mathematics, her studies at MIT have been postponed so she could go to London to sell her deceased grandmother's home, a grandmother she hadn't even know about. Once in London and unable to sell the house due to the then-imminent war, Maggie decides to stay and support her native country against its worst threat.

Red-haired and outspoken, Maggie is lucky in her friends, who recommend her for a position at Number 10 Downing Street. Her American candor comes to the fore when she is passed over for the job of principal secretary and relegated to the typing pool. Principal secretaries, like her friends David and John, are men of good family destined for high ranking positions in the government.

With a high level clearance and taking dictation from Winston Churchill himself, she has insight into the war effort that she cannot share with her housemates: Paige, a Southern belle friend from college; Sarah, a ballerina hoping to move up to a solo role, and the flighty twin sisters, Annabelle and Clarabelle. Just as she is settling into her job, Maggie is caught up in a mysterious plot to undermine England's government during its time of greatest danger, one that touches on her own family.

Maggie's adventure moves quickly, with something for everyone: well-researched details about the war, lively nightclubs, beautiful Worth gowns, a doomed love affair, a nuanced portrait of Churchill, sparkling characters, plenty of suspense, and a resounding climax.

If you like Call the Midwife and Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, you will like this book.

There are a few missteps in the first half of the book. Published by Bantam, I'm surprised their editorial staff didn't catch them. They aren't misspellings or incorrect grammar. Rather, they are consistency errors, a not-uncommon danger when the writer knows what she means but hasn't made it clear for the reader. Such errors are usually caught early by your beta readers or critique group.

For example, at one point Maggie is talking with her friends David and John. After some conversation, suddenly Churchill says something, where previously there was no indication he was in the room. Then when David and John leave the room they are followed out by another colleague, again someone we hadn't been told was in the room.

In another example, two men are arguing over an envelope. The man who was holding the envelope the last time it was mentioned demands that the other man hand it over. Button, button, who has the button?

Such lapses happen easily enough, especially in the last stages of cutting to get a manuscript down to size. It's important to have a final consistency check done by someone unfamiliar with the manuscript. Some authors read it backwards or aloud to prevent their eyes from skipping over problems like these.

Don't let these few instances keep you from reading the book. It's a rollicking ride with plenty of authentic detail and characters you'll want to follow in the other books in the series.

What's your favorite mystery series?

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe

This Japanese novel from 1962 starts innocently enough. A man has disappeared after boarding a train to the seashore for a holiday. An amateur entomologist, he told the woman with whom he lives that he planned to collect specimens. Since no body is discovered in the area where he was headed, there is little to no investigation. Most people assume he's gone off with a woman or committed suicide.

After this brief introductory chapter, we enter the man's mind as he leaves the train and boards a bus. He takes the bus to the end of the line and then walks through a small village to the dunes by the sea. He wants to collect insects in the dunes, hoping to find a new variety, something no one has seen before. Perhaps it could be named after him.

He's been studying about sand and finds himself thinking about the size of the particles and the particular way it is somehow isolated from soil and clay and stones to create deserts and sandy beaches. As he wanders, eyes alert for beetles, thoughts circling around sand particles, he runs into several villagers who lure him into captivity, trapped in a deep cavity in the dunes where a woman lives in a shabby house. In return for digging the ever-encroaching sand and putting it in tins for the villagers to pull up and take away, they are provided with minimal food and water.

We now enter the realm of parable. Like something out of Kafka or Poe, the man at first rails against his imprisonment, refusing to work and trying to escape. The joy of this book is the slow, subtle, and thoroughly believable way that his spirit is broken. To build his strength and deceive his jailors, he pretends to accommodate himself to life in the hole. When not digging sand, he helps the woman string beads, extra work she has taken on to earn money for a radio. His “gentle contentment” grows until he remembers that “He had intended this accommodation to be a means, never a goal.”

At every turn I thought of my own long life working in offices. I thought of the salarymen in Japan, trying to hold onto jobs by putting in long hours of overtime and not taking vacation or sick days. When I went to Japan again a few years ago, the train from Tokyo was delayed because someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of it. I was told that this was a common occurrence.

It used to make me sad to think of the way we compromise our youthful dreams as we grow older. Then I decided that such a development was only realistic. Once we have responsibilities—spouses, children, mortgages—we must have a thought for these beloved and freely chosen encumbrances. We cannot think only of ourselves.

And office work gave me more than an income. It challenged me intellectually and forced me to become more disciplined. More importantly, it pulled me out of my shell and taught me to interact with and value people from circles I would not otherwise have breached. Working closely with strangers who became colleagues and, often, friends, rubbed off the rough edges of my eccentric solitary habits.

Yet this story reminds me how easily a temporary adjustment can become a prison.

What book have you read that changed the way you thought about your life?

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li

Over the years, the staff at the Ivy Bookshop, my local indie bookstore, have introduced me to many of what have become my favorite books: Stoner, Old Filth, and The Sleeping Dictionary to name just a few. I always go there before my book club’s annual book selection night, and their recommendations are usually the ones we like the best. So when they put up a display of books by Chinese and Japanese authors with lovely covers from Vintage International and Random House, I immediately wanted one of each. Perhaps I will end up there, but for now I’m starting with four.

And what a way to start! Yiyun Li’s short stories bring to life a world of people far removed from the headlines and stereotypes. Some are set in China and some in the U.S., but most include or reference the tension of sons, daughters, or fiancés who have gone to the U.S. to study and may or may not return. All are told in the voice of a storyteller, one who gives us an entrée into the lives of ordinary people with astonishing stories to tell. Each person feels like someone we know quite well.

What I found most fascinating is the mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the first story, “Granny Lin”, the title character seems like many elderly women I've known who have been sidelined throughout their lives, following advice that turns out wrong, working hard. Yet she is uniquely herself. Her neighbor says of her, “. . . were there one honest person left on earth, it would be you.” She loves working as a maid at an exclusive private school where “Every meal is a banquet.” and takes on extra work in the laundry. There, she encounters a young boy who is “the son of a disfavored wife” and they become friends.

I love the way Li uses subtle turns of phrase, as well as proverbs, aphorisms, and references to mythology to convey the flavor of Chinese dialogue. For instance, a boy vowing vengeance on a gang who beat up his brother says, “Boys of the Song family are not soft persimmons for others to squeeze.” A woman says of a man who has been “married three times, and three times the wife died. They say he has the fate of a diamond.” She explains that “His life is as hard as a diamond and whoever he marries will be damaged.”

Also, alluding to a cultural factor that exists in China—and in the U.S. as well, though perhaps more covertly—the smallest happiness must be negotiated against totalitarian powers. These powers may be the state with their one-child policy, or pompous, pampered officials who make free with the lives of their peasant comrades. They may be school officials or parents whose expectations can feel like shackles.

Part of this negotiation is what can be said and what cannot be said, whether out of modesty or loneliness or fear of retribution. There are many silences in these stories. The title story brilliantly explores this theme: the elderly Mr. Shi comes to visit his daughter in the Midwest town where she works in a college library. He befriends a woman from Iran, even though neither speaks much English, and tries to talk with his daughter. The communication between them, in words but also in the food he cooks for her, shifts in the course of the story. His daughter says that a new language “makes you a new person.”

Sometimes the reference to the U.S. may be simply the name of a film. In “Love in the Marketplace”, Sansan is called Miss Casablanca by her students because she shows the film five or six times a semester. I remember my son watching that film over and over. For Sansan, a 32-year-old spinster, a promise is a promise. We go with her to see her mother who sells seasoned eggs in the marketplace. The lives of these two women may seem small, but their choices and the integrity with which they make them loom large. They linger in my memory long after I have finished the story, as I ponder the details of their stories and the larger human context.

What short story collection have you read that lingers in your mind?

These Days, by Margo Christie

I did a reading with Margo Christie a little while ago, and we had an interesting discussion about using life experiences in memoir and fiction. I read from my memoir, Innocent, and she read from this novel, which is based on some of her own experiences.

Fourteen-year-old Becky Shelling idolizes her father, jazz trumpeter Ernie Shelling, a romantic figure whose gigs take him traveling or staying out till the wee hours. He in turn favors her over his step-daughter, treating Becky to dance lessons and taking her along to sing with one of his woman friends, Teri the Canary. To Becky, his glamorous work far outshines their shabby rowhouse in Highlandtown, a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore of formstone rowhouses with at least one bar, if not four, at every intersection.

Then he gets a gig in Miami and leaves, promising to send Becky a bus ticket. Although her stepmother continues to let Becky live there, life becomes more and more intolerable as her stepsister’s boyfriend and his rowdy friends take over the place whenever Arlene is at work. It’s 1974, but Becky has assembled a wardrobe out of the 1940s, thanks to Goodwill shops. Hoping for a stage career, she finds a job at a run-down dinner theater in Middle River, working as an usher, coat-check girl, costume repairer, or whatever else needed doing while snagging some small parts.

It’s there that she meets Lenny Moss, an older man who sells insurance and looks like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She becomes not just his mistress but also his employee when he fulfills his long-time dream of opening a bar on the Block, Baltimore’s famous red-light district. The Block used to stretch to several blocks of burlesque clubs but by the 1970s had begun its long slide down into an ever-shrinking area of peep shows and strip joints. Moss hopes to reverse this trend by imbuing his club with some of the opulence of the old days, when women wore fabulously beaded and embellished gowns and danced and teased with their fans and feathered boas.

Stories of older men and young teenaged girls make my skin crawl, but there’s something sweet about this one. Becky is so invested in becoming a 1940s glamour queen; she and Lenny meet on level ground when it comes to their dreams. However, morning always comes, and hanging out with her new friends on the Block, Becky begins to learn the truth about her father.

This award-winning book is thoroughly addictive. Long past my usual lights-out, Christie’s prose kept me reading, oh just one more page, one more chapter. Her dialogue is a delight, catching the nuances of the varied cast of characters, from clumsy teenaged boys to sultry torch singers. And bars and kitchens and gowns all come to life in her descriptions. It was also fun to hear all the stories about the Block in the old days. When I was growing up, it was still world-famous. I remember a doctor visiting us from India. “All I know about Baltimore,” he said, “is Fort McHenry and the Block.”

Holding onto the past, wanting to recreate a more dazzling time, seems relatively harmless. Becky’s story, though, makes me think again about the sometimes dangerous allure of nostalgia.

Have you read a novel where someone clings to the past, perhaps in a subtle way rather than insanely à la Miss Havisham?